President Bush landed on the deck of the aircraft carrier I lived on in 2003, and declared “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq. My God, we thought we’d done something that day. Kicked ass. Destroyed the evil Saddam before he unleashed the mushroom cloud. We all believed. Going to be greeted as liberators, Dickhead Cheney assured us. A slam dunk, CIA Director Tenet boasted.
Now, when I get off work, I am ballasted at one of the cushioned stools, marooned in a certain bar in this town and talk to some of the guys, endure the empty headed Fox jerk offs with what they call the news. The bar owner (we’ll call him Cash) runs Fox or the Braves game, or a football game in season, above the bar as long as the bar is open. It’s a small bar tucked away close to the water. No pool tables or cheerleader waitresses serving passels of hot wings. No, this is strictly a bar for the Marines and Navy guys. The walls are plastered with signed photos of Blue Angels dating back to the seventies, some of Cash’s old Marine buddies from Vietnam, photographs from Desert Storm, and now some of us from this second Iraq war and Afghanistan. Cash has all kinds of special prices for disabled vets ex-POWs, D-Day and Pearl Harbor survivors, and Guadalcanal, Okinawa, Batan Death March, the ones left from the Korean War, and Khe Sanh.
I’m kind of notorious in the bar because I’m in that photo with the president in his flight suit, carrying a flight helmet, strutting between the two lines on the flight deck. At the end of our line he does his hew-haw Texas handshake with the Admiral and Captain and Exec. I hate that picture, ashamed at myself. I’m the black officer standing in the vicinity of the Admiral, saluting. My gaunt left profile in the photo, in the best shape of my life. After that snapshot was taken, the President turned to me and we shook hands, and I said, “Thank you, Mr. President,” to whatever he shouted. I can’t remember now, and “Nice to meet you, sir. Welcome to the Lincoln.” Gung-ho. Intoxicated with patriotism which Thomas Mann says is a plague and the surest death of Christian charity.
This is my day, now. Up at four. Work (if you want to call it that) at five, manacled to a desk for eight. Stew at Cash’s until about nine or ten, and then go to my empty house, dwelling rather, no tomb. Desked for the rest of my Naval career. No more flying since my Sea Dragon crashed and broke my back and legs. Vision somehow effected, too. Non 20-20, tinker-toyed together with titanium rods, plates, screws, energy plundered by chronic pain, I’m deemed a hazard in a cockpit. No more scudding over the sea, no more chance for promotion. Twenty-five more months to full retirement. But the Navy would is willing to offer early retirement. Fear or habit leads me like the prow to the next day, the next week, month.
My father (the Admiral) and mother spend their retirement days in San Diego keeping their golf and tennis dates straight. They travel abroad a lot, too. I’m ill-suited to leisure that involves whacking a small ball and chasing it around. I’m happiest when I’m in the sky, flying. Have always been. Down on the ground is when things get bogged down.
My grandfather would not understand my parents. He sharecropped in south Alabama, lived in a home never furnished with central air or heat. He broke ground, planted seed strapped to mule and plow, picked cotton with gnarled calloused hands. Opportunity for success was in the harvest. He kept his head down while plowing, planting, or picking, one row at a time. Taciturn, joint wearing, back breaking.
But, what happens when you run into roots and boulders underground in your path that you can’t move? I’m not a man of the land.
Cash had a Mynah bird named BoBo he garrisoned at the bar. About every two or three hours the bird was inspired to converse.
“Laugh, Dad,” said BoBo.
“No, you laugh,” said Cash.
“No, you laugh.”
“You laugh, damn you.”
“Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha,” BoBo squawked.
It was this conversation I heard as I brooded over the next day’s appearance at the courthouse for jury duty. I’d never had been called for jury duty. I’d always been out to sea, never living in one place long enough to be hood winked into having to sit in judgment of some poor bastard who was being prosecuted. I was trying to decide, over a couple of Scotches whether to lose the summons or comply. I was tired of complying, always complying, my whole life complying.
Cash handed a beer down the bar and turned to wash and dry glasses. He saw me scrutinizing my summons and stepped up to me wiping his hands with a towel. “What you got there, Tommy?”
“Jury summons.” I handed it to him.
He pushed his glasses from the top of his forehead onto the bridge of his nose. “You are hereby summoned, da, da, da, for jury service. Signed, Clerk of the Superior Court. Yep. Sure nuff looks that way.” He gave it back to me, thumbed his glasses back on top of his head, picked up a shot glass, a hand towel, and started polishing it.
“What would you do?”
“Call in and say you can’t come in because of pressing military business. Or plead hardship. Or say you can’t sit for long periods of time because of your back that was injured during military service. That you’re a disabled veteran.”
“Think that’ll get me off, huh?”
“Probably. Might. Good chance. Hell, you got a better chance than most.”
“Goddamnit,” I blew. It felt as if my back fusion screws were drilling clear through my flesh and the rods running along my discs were picking up the vibrations of some seismic event.
“They’ll send out the police or deputies or something if I don’t show, I suppose. Put me in jail for contempt or something.”
“You worry too much, Tommy. They got too many more important things to do than come hunting for your ass. Shit, I’d lose that cock sucker. You could say you never receive it. Claim you could never sit because of your injury suffered while serving your country. Blame it on the Post Office. Take the damn day off, the week. Go fishing. It’s supposed to be a cloudy day tomorrow. Better yet, find a woman, get yourself fucked or something. I got Viagra and Cialis, whatever you need to keep you pecker up. Take your pick. It’ll keep you hard for hours, man. Drive her crazy. Got some ecstasy, too. Slip a bit in her drink and she’ll be like a thousand dollar whore.”
It’d been how long since I’d had sex? Four years, plus the three months I was out at sea? I’d become a monk, an ascetic, cloistering myself most of the time, in my minimalistic cell where I paid my bills and where I laid my head. Celibacy is not something I thought about, until now. It does make life simpler, conforming to an ascetic lifestyle, and God knew that’s what I strived for – no confusion, no suffering, no attachments, no clutter, no demands, no obstacles. Women had become asexual human forms who inhabited the earth. I awoke, went to work, ate what little I needed without joy, spent time at Cash’s bar after work, went home, read until I fell asleep (I didn’t even own a television), and awoke the next morning and did the same thing.
I mailed the child support without fail and obsessed over the medical insurance premium being automatically withdrawn from my paycheck. I’d visited my kids, but it didn’t matter to my daughter. She was five, born mentally retarded (I don’t know a more sensitive way of describing it) blind, with a serious heart defect which hospitalized her multiple times a year. My wife, a quiet woman who dreamed of a house full of children, through her screams and sobs, told me the day before I left for sea, “Tommy, you should have let me abort the pregnancy when the amniocentesis came back showing that she was going to be born with these terrible defects.”
“That was both our decision, as I recall,” I said coldly pulling my uniforms out of the closet and packing my bag.
“No it wasn’t,” she shouted.
“You have a way of re-remembering things,” she said. “You said you would not allow me to abort your child, no matter what because it was a life.”
“She is a life. A precious life, no matter what.”
A beautiful petite French woman six inches shorter than me, she stepped in front of my chest. “You and your Catholic morality. Now its our little baby that has to suffer for your morality. Our innocent baby who didn’t ask to be born into this world.” I stepped away. She slapped me over and over and shouted. “Just for your sense of morality, Tommy. To make you feel better, not anyone else.” She grabbed my arm. Her fingernail dug into my flesh. She wanted me to say something, but I didn’t. With her little fist, she pounded my chest and yelled at me in French, “I hate you, you bastard. You’re nothing but a cold blooded bastard.” I didn’t resist. “I hate you, Tommy. It’s not fair. I hate you. Do you hear me? You’re away at sea all the time. You’re not at home caring for this special needs baby. It’s me. Me, Tommy. You don’t know what love is. Love is caring for people. You and your morality and rules. Your family is supposed to be first, Tommy. We’re your family. Stay with us. Help us.”
“I have to go. We go through this every time. You know I have to go. That’s my job. That’s how I help. You have a nurse that helps you. I got you a nurse to help with the baby. You know I love you and the children.”
Her face was flush, worn, tired. She wiped her cheeks with the back of her hands; looked at me for a long time. Not the woman I married, pulling back her hair. “You’re a coward. I’ve had enough, Tommy. Enough. I can’t do this anymore. With you. We won’t be here when you come back.”
I picked up my bags. “We’ll talk about this later,” I said. Then I walked out.
“We won’t be here when you come back.”
I didn’t hear from her for weeks. The divorce papers were delivered in the middle of the Indian Ocean. I agreed for her to have what she wanted, which was the divorce and everything else. What did I need? I had everything I needed on ship. Six months later we were legally no longer Mr. and Mrs. Riptided from my family and unwilling or uninterested or unmotivated to swim perpendicular to the current. It wasn’t because I didn’t care. I was paralyzed by anxiety and gloom, an overbearing shrouding darkness that I’d never encountered before that sucked me under and out to sea. I forgot how to move, to swim out of it. Six months later, my chopper crashed, I mean I crashed my chopper, two good people died, three good people were hurt so severely they required surgery and spent weeks in the hospital. I deserved everything I got, everything I’m getting. I’m resigned to being boiled down to my essential purpose here, at least for my son and my daughter’s sake: a paycheck. I suppose that’s as it should be.
“Another, please, Cash. A double, so I can sleep.”
“I got some pills that might help you sleep.”
“Naw. Better not.
A tall white guy, muscular, black short hair combed straight back, leaned up to the bar wearing jeans, deck shoes, sockless, and a white polo shirt. “How’s it going, Cash?” He tapped on BoBo’s cage. “Laugh BoBo.” The bird ducked down and darted up, ducked and bobbed, unblinking. “Laugh BoBo.”
Bobo said, “Here kittie, kittie. Meow. Meow.” Then he assumed an air of puffed up sleepiness behind the wires.
Cash poured Guinness out of the tap. “Here you go, Sean.”
“That bird never does that laughing gag for me,” Sean said.
“Maybe he knows something about you that we don’t,” some salty dog said down the bar from me. “Like he knows you don’t got no sense of humor.”
“Drink your beer, Fred,” Cash told the scrawny man.
Fred shook his shoulders laughing, leaving him coughing up phlegm into a cocktail napkin.
After Fred gained some control, Sean asked, “Where’s your oxygen, old man?”
“Baa. Left it at home.” Fred turned up his mug of beer.
“What meanness have you gotten into today, Sean?” Cash said.
“Down in Crackavania again,” Sean said after a long gulp of Guinness. “Target rich. Chasing crack heads. Chased one four blocks all the way into the Pimpbrook Apartments. When one of the guys finally tackled one of them, he liked to have broke the creep’s arm. The guy stuffed the crack in his mouth and tried to swallow it. Then he started foaming like a dog with rabies.” Sean looked at the old man. “Kind of like you, Fred.”
The telephone rang, rang, rang. Cash answered it.
“Aw. In my day,” Fred said, “we would have just shot the bastard in the leg. If we missed and he got hit in the back, well, it was the stupid idiot’s own fault for running. We didn’t have no running after nobody if we could help it. When you said ‘Stop,’ people knew we weren’t messing around, that if they didn’t stop, they were taking their chances, we’d shoot them for sure. Wasn’t none of this running bullshit.”
“There wasn’t civil rights lawsuits in your day, either.”
Cash hung up the phone. “Fred. That was your daughter. She said supper is ready, and time to come home.”
“All right. So what did you end up doing with the perp?” Fred said.
“I tased him four freakin’ times,” Sean said.
“Tased him? Back in my day he’d of been dead,” Fred said.
“Of course,” Sean said.
Fred stood and dropped a dollar on the bar. Within his white forearm hairs was a tattoo of a smiling well proportioned nude woman riding a WWII era airplane.
Sean slugged the Guinness and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Whatchyou pouting about, Cash?”
“He lost a lot of money on that damn gambling boat last night?” Fred said. “I been trying to work on his noodle, but he won’t listen to me.” Fred put his hand on Sean’s forearm. “See if you talk any sense into the old bastard, son.”
Cash dipped glasses in the sink water under the bar. “I tell you, those games are rigged. I’m done with that boat. Y’all need to send some undercover people in there and infiltrate that place. It’s corrupt.”
“I told you,” Sean said. “You’re just throwing good money after bad.”
“That was the worst thing they ever did around here was bring in that gambling boat,” Fred said. “Nothing good comes from gambling operations. Just more vice.”
“I’ll have another,” Sean said. “Me gullet’s dry.”
“Well, I’ll see y’all later,” Fred said. We watched him swagger out the door.
“Bye-Bye. Come back. Be careful,” the bird said.
“You think he’s okay to drive?” I said.
“Oh, he’s all right.” Cash said. “Sober as a Pentacostal preacher.” Cash wiped a glass dry and laughed under his breath.
“Been called into jury duty?” Sean said.
“Pardon?” I said.
He pointed. “Jury duty. You got jury duty coming up?”
I waved the summons and half laughed. “Yeah.”
He reached for the summons. “Can I see it?”
I handed it to him.
“The jurors we got in this county got the IQ of Billy goats. Watch too much C.S.I. on TV and think you can get a fingerprint off a human hair. Hell, in this county they won’t convict a jaywalker without forensic evidence.” Sean took a swig of his Guinness and wiped his mouth with a cocktail napkin. “So, you been getting drunk on Scotch hoping this jury summons will just go away, is that it?”
“Well . . .”
“You think if you just ignore it, it’ll just evaporate into thin air?”
“No, no, that’s not what I was thinking. I--”
“Sure you were.” He laughed and slapped me on the shoulder. “We put enough whiskey in our guts and hope things will just magically disappear. Drink a little more and we start getting forgetful, start disremembering things, recreating memories. Ain’t that right Cash?”
Cash stretched to set glasses on shelves behind the bar. “Hey, I’m in the business of selling drinks. The reason why a customer wants a drink is none of my business. I’m just glad they come in to my bar. I got bills just like everybody else.”
“Yeah.” Sean fluttered his fingers. “Ignore the bad things and they’ll just fly away.”
“I’m suppose to show tomorrow.” A mosquito flew round my face. I swatted at it and almost knocked over my glass.
“If you’re driving, you got no business in your condition.”
“What? You had no problem with Fred.”
“I said, if you’ve got jury duty tomorrow, you better not drive.”
“Ah, I feel fine,” I said. “I can drive myself home. I don’t live too far from here.”
“Yeah. I hear that all the time.” Sean pointed to his mouth. “Your speech is a little slurred.” He blinked and pointed at his eyes. “And your eyes look a little red around the edges.”
“I’ll be fine.”
He told me to get off the stool and stand.
I rolled my eyes to Cash and took another sip of my Scotch. “You’re not serious.”
Cash cleared his throat, snickered, and grabbed the TV remote to find the Braves game. That’s when I saw the police badge float slowly into my vision and remain there. Sean took off his jacket. There was the holstered pistol on his belt.
“Okay. Now, I want you to stand and spread your arms at your side.”
I stood and complied.
“Now close your eyes. Touch your nose with the tip of you finger.”
“Now open your eyes.”
“How’d I do?”
“We’re almost done. Where you from?”
I told him, “But my mother’s French.”
“You speak it?”
“Yeah. I lived in Paris until I was fifteen.”
“You don’t have that kind of accent.”
“Well . . . ”
“Can you speak any?”
“French. French, man. You know.” He enunciated slowly, “Can you speak any French?”
“Well, say something. Prove it.”
“Ah . . .ah . . . My damn mind’s gone blank.”
“I’m sure it has.”
There was some excitement on the TV. It prompted me to started speaking in French. Sean took hold of my chin and held up a little flashlight and shined it in my eyes. “What in the world are you saying?” he asked.
“I’m doing the play-by-play.”
I pointed at the TV. “To the Braves game.”
He turned his head and watched the game. “Do it some more.” I continued speaking French while we watched the rest of the bottom half of the sixth inning. I could have been discussing the nature of mid-east politics or how I might grab is gun and shoot him for all he knew. When the inning came to an end, Sean faced me and said, “Now, look. I want you to keep your head still and follow this little light with your eyes. Don’t move your head, all right? Just your eyes, okay?”
He moved the light up and down and sideways.
“For the last test, the very last test. You’re doing well.” He cleared away some stools so there’d be some room to walk on the concrete floor. “Now, this is what I want you to do. I want you to walk like you’re walking a tight rope, okay?”
So, I tight roped like a performer in the circus. He told me to stop, and I hollered, “Ta-da-a-a-a,” and began singing the circus song.
“Now stand with your feet together--”
“Hey, I thought you said that was my very, very last test.”
“It is. This is a subpart of the last test.”
“Goddamn,” I said under my breath.
“Now, stand with your feet together. I want you to lift your leg at the hip, like this, okay?”
“I’ve performed a bar trick touching my nose with my finger with my eyes closed. I’ve done baseball play-by-play in French – I’d like you to find somebody else in this town who can do that. I’ve tight roped like your very own circus performer. And now you want me to do a ballet move? Are you an art critic or a cop?”
He glared, legs apart, arms cross.
I bowed. “To regale you with my grace and sobriety, I will perform a battement.” Ten years of ballet in Paris as a child. Like the typing classes she made me take in high school. They kept coming in handy. I put my heels together, back straight, head and chin held in correct position, my arms and hands likewise. A deep breath for dramatic effect. Then I slowly raised my right leg.
My foot barely aloft, excruciating pain like hot metal jolted up my left ankle, knee, hip, spine, and all at once, spots filled my vision, a hum and beeping, all I heard when I toppled. Into a stool. It took out a line of stools. When I awoke.
Sean pulled me up and sat me aright on a chair where my feet could touch the floor. “Put your head between your knees, Baryshnikov.” Cash came round and picked up the stools I’d turned over.
“Sean, I don’t think our artist passed,” Cash said.
Speaking with an effeminate lisp, sounding like a bad Truman Capote or Liberace, Sean said, “No. I’m afraid he didn’t. Too bad, though. The French are so beautiful in defeat.”
After a time, I sat up. “Can I drink the rest of my Scotch now?”
“Yeah, but you have to promise me you’re going to call a taxi to get you home,” he said.
“I’ll make sure the knucklehead gets a taxi home,” Cash said.
I took two long sips of Scotch. “Since you know my name, what did you say yours was again?”
“Locke. Sean Locke.”
“Locke. Locke. Lock ‘em up Locke. People tell you that all the time, huh?”
“Gets old, Tommy.”
“Seems you were destined for your line of work.”
Locke shrugged. “Mostly drunks who think they’re clever.”
Cash took our glasses and swiped the bar with a towel. “You guys want another?”
“Not for me,” Locke said. He put on his jacket and lifted his foot on a stool’s foot rest and jerked a money clip of cash from his jean pocket. He walked over and tapped on BoBo’s cage. “Laugh BoBo.”
From somewhere deep, Bobo roared, “No.”
Sean stepped back. “Damn.”
Shouts came from the baseball game on the television. One of the Braves circled the bases. “Home run,” Bobo said.
“That damn bird. Why is he like that to me?” Sean said.
“You shouldn’t aggravate him,” Cash said.
Cash slid Locke a clear plastic baggie and Locke passed Cash some folded bills. Cash pocketed the money, and then raised his head to the baseball game.
Locke dropped the baggie in a brown paper bag, rolled it up, and slid the bag down his back waistband. “See ya, Tommy. Be safe.”
I nodded and waved weakly.
“Bye-bye,” Bobo said.
The door slapped shut.
“Moron,” Bobo said.
“I called my boys,” Cash said. “They’re coming over to get you and drive your car home.” He slipped a baggie of pot to me under a napkin. “I know you’re going through some rough times. You’re a good customer, Tommy. I don’t like seeing you down everyday.”
My hands shook. I studied the bag, palmed it, and put it in my coat pocket. I thought about taking it home, smoking it, and imagined what affect it would have. Then I pulled the bag out of my pocket and pushed it slowly back to Cash inside the napkin. “Thanks all the same. I guess I’ll stick to the Scotch.”
Cash scooped the bag up slowly. “Get yourself home. Get some rest.”
“Yeah, I need it. Thanks.”
Cash’s boys came in the bar. One gave his dad a rolled up brown bag. Cash walked to the back room. A few seconds later, he was back prompting Bobo to ask one of his sons, “Boy, did you work today?”
“Yes, I worked today, you dumb bird.”
“Give me your money.”
The boy reached into his jean pocket and put a dime in BoBo’s beak. BoBo side-stepped across his perch and hostaged the coin in a tobacco can on the cage floor piled with pennies, nickels, and other dimes. When the coin splashed, the savant miser shrieked and flapped his wings, creating a downwash that churned seeds and feathers out of his cage, as he unascended, unsoared, incorruptible.
A clerk carrying a clipboard ushered us into the courtroom, a dark paneled room with no windows. Hung over and muscles and joints stiff and sore, the good air conditioning helped keep the nausea in check. The wooden pews we were herded into made life hell. Eventually my legs were numb and I could not feel my feet.
Our names were called and the judge made his introductions. After our oath, twelve of us were impaneled in the jury box which allowed the lawyers to probe. The prosecutor was interested in if we’d had had bad experiences with police officers, if we were distrustful of the criminal justice system, whether we felt police officers would lie on the witness stand to gain a conviction, whether a prosecutor would do anything at trial to gain a conviction, whether the state would falsify or conceal evidence, and if any of us had a loved one in jail or in prison presently. He told us that since this was a gang related execution style shooting concerning a drug turf war where the state was seeking the death penalty, the prosecutor, wanted to know if any of us had a problem with capital punishment. A few of us, including me raised our hands. I was working hard to get out of having to serve, but when it came to that, it was a no brainer.
“You don’t think you could vote for the death penalty, sir?” the prosecutor asked.
“No, sir,” I said.
“Do you have a philosophical opposition to capital punishment?”
“Not in all cases.”
“Can you expand on your answer.”
“My opposition to capital punishment is based on economics and politics. I know that prosecutors seek the death penalty usually to seek political points despite the fact that it drains the budgets of the local governments of which the prosecutor works. In the case recently in Atlanta it nearly bankrupted the entire Georgia indigent defense budget. Politicians who fund the indigent defense budget in this state don’t seem to care. And I know darn well you prosecutors don’t care. You just want to score political points.”
“So you don’t think the death penalty is appropriate in this case where two people were shot execution style when, we contend a drug deal went bad?”
“No. With all the things I’ve read in newspapers and magazines, I think it would be cheaper to house people in prison for life than to go through a show trial to seek the death penalty.”
“You are in the Navy? An Officer?”
“Did you serve in the recent war in Iraq, Afghanistan?”
“How do you feel about the war there?”
“I’m a sailor. I follow orders. I’m not a politician or a policymaker.”
“Surely you have an opinion about the war. Do you think we need to have troops there? Do you think we’re bankrupting our nation? Are our troops spread too thin? Don’t you think it was a vendetta – a lie by Cheney-Bush that got us into Iraq? And isn’t it politics that keeps us in there? And as to Afghanistan, the British couldn’t accomplish a balance of control there. It bankrupted the Soviet Union and brought down the Iron Curtain. Didn’t it? Don’t you agree that we don’t learn anything from history? Or don’t care? Just like a death penalty case, it’s bankrupting us, too. That we need to pull out immediately?”
“I think we’re getting off track,” the judge said. “Move along.”
“You’re right, your Honor. I apologize. Commander, how do feel about illegal narcotics?”
“Don’t use them. Their not good for you. They fry your brain, destroy your life.” That drew muffled laughter.
“Do you think they should be legalized?”
“Some should. Why not?”
“Marijuana for one. Regulate it. It’s no worse than alcohol.”
The defendant’s attorney, a tall, long-legged, lavish woman in her late thirties with one of those modern double names looked at her legal pad on the lectern, then gazed at me, and smiled. She asked if I believed the criminal justice system was stacked against people on the fringes of society such as the poor and minorities. I guess she asked me this question since her client and I were of the same skin color. I liked the way she looked, moved, and smelled, but this didn’t mean I would agree with everything she said.
“Commander, you must have taken on great responsibility and achieved success in the matters you were tasked to rise to such rank.”
I disliked having my ass kissed to try to manipulate me. “That’s part of my job, ma’am.”
“In your experience as a Naval officer, you have had command over men and women sailors, is that correct?”
“Do you believe in second chances.”
“Yes, generally. But, specifically, it depends on the circumstance and person.”
“Would I be correct that you balance the why and the result?”
“That would be fair.”
She poured a cup of water and sipped it at her table with her eyes closed. She wore a dark grey suit, a white pressed cotton blouse buttoned down to beyond the business revealing line, black hose, and black domineering heels. Her dark hair shimmered. Nothing belied her confidence and comfort in the courtroom. She poured another cup of water and sipped from it as we stared each other down.
“Do you think innocent people are routinely convicted?”
“In this country? Not routinely. Does it happen? Yes. But routinely? No.”
“Why do you think it happens?”
“Well, I guess it happens when defense lawyers don’t do their job, witnesses lie or testify mistakenly, incorrectly--”
“Oh you think witnesses lie on the stand even though they swear to tell the truth?”
“Sure I think they lie.”
“For all different motivations. Self preservation, carelessness, to carry out a vendetta, power, laziness, etc.”
“What other reasons do thing people are convicted wrongly?”
“Well the evidence is not accurate such as DNA, evidence is withheld like you hear about, or witnesses testify untruthfully or incorrectly, or the jurors just don’t do their jobs honestly, conscientiously.”
“Will you be a conscientious juror in this case, and consider the evidence fairly and objectively and wait to make your decision after you’ve heard all the evidence?”
She crossed her arms across her breasts. They seemed enhanced. “Would you punish the defendant if he did not testify?”
It would be nice to have dinner with wine and good conversation with this woman. “Like I said earlier, I’d like to hear his side of things.”
“Right. But would you punish him for exercising his constitutional right to remain silent?”
“I guess I couldn’t because it’s the law. Isn’t it the law?”
“That’s the law. You’re not supposed to punish him for not taking the stand at his trial and exercising his right to remain silent. Do you understand?”
“So what you are saying is you would not punish him for exercising his right to remain silent? That’s just what you said. Right?”
“Well, I guess. I mean, it would probably depend on the evidence I heard up to that point. I can imagine a situation where the evidence could be so weak that I wouldn’t require the defendant to testify at all because the State had not proven its case.”
“That’s right. It’s the law.”
“I’d follow the law.” I’d follow anything she’d ask me to do. She spun on the ball of her feet. What a sweet ass. I’d follow her to the nearest hotel room or broom closet. Hell, let’s try the jury room table out. She seemed the type for a noonie.
“You follow the rules, don’t you Commander?”
“I’m sorry? Yes, ma’am.”
Then she stepped in front of me, smiled. Her perfume. And thanked me.
After the lawyers finished with my panel, I remained in the courtroom to watch. The questioning droned on until the prosecutor, got to one articulate young man.
“Sir, your name is . . . Mr. . . I’m sorry, I’m having trouble with my eyeglasses today . . .”
The prosecutor held the list of juror’s names in front of his face and squinted. Then moved the list away from his face and closer in. “Mr. Poythress. Thank you.”
“No. My first name is Poythress. My last name is Settles.”
“Thank you, sir,” the prosecutor said. “Now, it says here that you are a student, but are in the Army Reserves?”
“Do you mind telling me more about that?”
“Yes, sir. I’m enrolled right now at Savannah State. I’m also in the Reserves. At the end of this semester, I am scheduled to be deployed back to Iraq.”
“You’ve been deployed there before?”
The prosecutor asked, “I just wanted to know if you can be fair to both sides, or do you come into this case with some kind of reason that you might be partial to one side or the other?”
“Yes, sir, I can be fair,” Settles said. “But . . .”
“Is there something you wanted to add?”
“I don’t know. I guess. I’m not trying to be smart, sir.”
“Don’t worry about that,” the prosecutor said. “We just want to know how you feel. What you think. There is no right or wrong answers. This isn’t a test. I can take whatever answer you want to lay on me.”
"Well, the question I had is, can the State be fair to the defendant?”
“What do you mean by that?”
“I’m just saying, is it going to be a fair trial?” Settles pointed to the lanky medium skinned kid with hair twists, dressed awkwardly in black slacks and a white ill-fitted shirt and blue tie. “I don’t think the defendant is going to have a fair trial.”
The prosecutor made a note on a chart on the lectern. “So you can’t be fair to the State. Is that what I’m hearing you say?”
“No, no, no. That’s not what I said,” Settles said, leaning forward in his seat. “That’s not what I meant to say. I can be fair. I’m not saying I’m not going to be fair. What I said is I don’t think the defendant’s going to get a fair trial.”
“And why is that? Can you be clearer in your explanation?”
“It’s the way the thing is set up.”
“The thing. What is the thing?” The prosecutor held both sides of the lectern and leaned one ear toward Settles. “The way what is set up? Is it the courtroom, the system, the rules, the people who run the system? Do you mind being more specific?”
“The system is flawed because of the people who run it.”
The prosecutor said, “Let me ask you. People make up the system, so you think they are corrupt, or they are fallible, make mistakes, is that what you are saying?”
“I think a lot of this is a façade to make us all feel better. But, yes, I believe that the police will lie or cheat to get a conviction, not all the time, but some of the time, enough to make us mistrust them. I think crime labs will cheat to get convictions, too, and that scientific tests are performed incorrectly. People come into court and identify the wrong folks. Poor people get bad lawyers. Too many folks are getting wrongly convicted. And if a defendant in a death penalty gets wrongly convicted and put to death it’s too late if it’s later found out he didn’t do it. I think we all have a reason to mistrust the criminal justice system. We hear about people wrongly convicted all the time. I did a paper at school about the crime lab director in Oklahoma City who lied for years in death penalty cases. They don’t know how many wrongly convicted people were put to death because of that woman. They haven’t even charged her with any crime. Just because she was a cop. It’s crazy. I distrust most cops and the entire system. I despair that it’s terribly flawed.”
The prosecutor wiped his nose with a handkerchief, folded it, and replaced it inside his suit’s coat pocket. “Sorry. I’m recovering from a cold.”
“That’s all right,” Settles said, smiling.
“Mr. Settles, have you ever been wrongly accused of a crime?”
“No, but my brother has. My best friend’s brother is in prison right now because the judge made him go to trial with a lawyer who never came to talk to him before trial and never talked to witnesses and never filed any motions. My uncle’s on death row.”
“Yes. For double murder.”
“Do you think he was unfairly treated?”
“Yes, from what I’ve heard. I was in Iraq during his trial.”
“Were you close to him?”
“Do you think he was too harshly punished?”
Settles nodded. “Yes. Very. That was the only time he had ever been arrested for anything. He’s a good man. He just married a sorry woman. She had even been in prison before for drugs. He caught her sleeping with another man who got her using crack cocaine again. When my uncle tried to get her away from that man and take her home the man and his wife attacked him and my uncle had a knife from the kitchen and he stabbed them in self defense.”
“I see,” said the prosecutor. “Where was he prosecuted?”
“Down in Brunswick.”
“In Glynn County? So you think he should have been acquitted? Should have been found not guilty?”
“Yes.” Settles spread his arms down and away from his hips, palms open. “He was defending his life against these crack heads. He was trying to save his wife. He didn’t go in there with a weapon. He’s a peaceful God fearing man. The best Christian man I’ve ever known.”
“That’s what you heard,” the prosecutor said, tapping his right ear.
“That’s my understanding of what happened,” Settles said, nodding his head, sitting on the edge of his seat. “He certainly was not guilty of murder.”
“Let me ask you this. Have you ever had a bad experience with a police officer?”
“I’ve been stopped a few times by officers for no reason other than being a black male out a dark or out walking from the college to my apartment which is about a mile.”
“Were you treated badly?”
“Rudely. It made me nervous because I didn’t know what the cop was after. You never know what the police are going to do. You hear stories from friends, uncles, cousins. They have all the power on the streets. I had none. When I was stopped, because I acted nervous, the police officer said, he thought I was hiding something, was guilty of something. So he called for backup. A second officer came with a dog. It was two against me with a German shepherd. It was dark. On the side of a road that didn’t get much traffic. Not a main road, not many cars. I was eighteen and hadn’t been driving by myself that long. Just gotten out of high school, was leaving my job, and going home. I was scared. They kept me there for about thirty minutes. Had me handcuffed me and sat me in the back of one of their patrol cars. One kept asking me if I had any secret compartments in my car and where I’d come from and where I was going. I let them search my car so the dog wouldn’t go in there and tear it up. They tore the interior up anyway looking for secret compartments. Then without a word they un-cuffed me, gave me back my driver’s license, and let me go. No apology for damaging my car or anything. $500 worth of damage. When I sought reimbursement they told me to sue them.”
“Does that experience still bother you?” the prosecutor said.
“Just every time I see a police car.” The response got a chuckle from the courtroom.
“Do you distrust law enforcement officers—”
“Not all,” Settles said.
“—Because of your bad experience?
“Because there will be police officers, investigators, and crime lab workers testifying in this trial?”
“Will you evaluate their credibility like other witness?”
The prosecutor sneezed. “Your distrust of the criminal justice system, do you base that on anything else?”
“I’d say it’s also based on my experience. We’re still in Iraq, except the president declared victory, didn’t he? What was it he did? Landed on that aircraft carrier like . . . well I won’t say what I want to say about that.”
Defense counsel stood. “Your honor, I don’t see what this has to do with finding out the biases, prejudices, and opinions of the juror.”
“Any response?” the judge said.
“This is not the place or time for political correctness,” the prosecutor said. “A trial is too important. We are trying to discern the opinions of people best suited to sit on this jury so we can have a fair trial with a reliable result.”
“Go ahead, Mr. Settles. I overrule the objection. Continue with your response.”
“You can continue,” the prosecutor said.
Settles coughed. “I was just going to say that then the president declared in big letters,” Settles stretched his hands in front of him, ‘MISSION ACCOMPLISHED’. It has made us look like a big joke all over the world. All these principles we’ve grown up with that we’re supposed to follow and respect and it’s our government imposing it’s will on us, its people. I mean that’s what happens in China and Russia, isn’t it? And we’re letting the government do it to us. We’re supposed to be the good guys. We’re supposed to be the good guys.”
The prosecutor augured his ear with his finger. “Yes, I hear what you’re saying.”
“I didn’t go all the way over to Iraq and come home to be talked to, with all due respect sir, by lawyers about fairness when I’ve seen buddies blown to bits and I’ve been shot at and I’ve tried to rebuild a nation that only the oil people and Haliburton and other big corporations and the oil cartel care anything about.”
“I think I see where you’re coming from,” the prosecutor said.
“I know I’m going on about this, but you get to thinking about this a lot after getting shot at and wondering if you’re going to get blown up while on patrol in your unarmored Humvee. But, we wonder if any of the leaders are really thinking about us while we’re over there. Really give a care. Or are we dispensible? We get to thinking that fairness has nothing to do with it. A government that listens to its people, that follows the will of the electorate, doesn’t exist in this nation any longer. The 2006 election proved that. The 2000 election was tampered with. The Bush-Cheney administration we later learned lied to get us into Iraq. And when we caught them on it, they just lied some more, didn’t they? or said it was too late? they could do it because they were the President, the Commander in Chief, and there wasn’t a thing we could do about it, right? I’ll go back to Iraq because that’s what I swore to do. It’s my duty. I’ll do it. Do my job.”